Africa and the decolonisation of international relations: a roundtable report

This article was written by Working Group Team
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On 15 June 2021 the working group hosted a virtual roundtable discussion: ‘What is holding Africa back in decolonising international relations’. The event was organised by Dele Kogbe, our co-convenor, and proved very successful, with almost 50 participants. Many were non-members (thanks to BISA’s financial support) and we were joined by a number of colleagues in Africa. The discussion was wide-ranging and free-flowing, so we will not attempt a full analysis here. However, by simply recording and summarising just some of the many questions raised we hope to stimulate further discussion among those who were and weren’t able to participate. Our main speakers were Juliet Thondhlana (Nottingham), Olukayode Faleye (Edo State), and Adaora Osondu-Oti (Afe Babalola). And the chair was Timothy Shaw (Massachusetts, Boston).

The historical role of the discipline

Our discussion ranged widely across philosophical and practical issues. Most of the questions related to the former clustered around the link between IR as a discipline and international relations as a (colonial) practice. For Adaora Osondu-Oti African thought has been so marginal to the discipline that it effectively reinforces the epistemicide of European colonialism, which violently displaced other ways of knowing. Akin Oyawale saw this as continuous with even older European legal doctrines, such as those that informed the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), or the infamous terra nullius. Whilst Okey Iheduru identified Africa as historically present within the discipline, but primarily as a problem of colonial management. He pointed here to the origins of Foreign Affairs as the Journal of Race Development, and to the origins of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs in British imperialist strategizing about South Africa.

Olivia Rutazibwa argued, however, that other (albeit still marginal) kinds of contributions have in fact long been made. An important example would be the older history of the study of race and racism in IR (e.g. Siba Grovogui, Randolph Persaud and Sankaran Krishna - or, more recently, Errol Henderson, Meera Sabaratnam, Gurminder Bhambra, Sabelo Ndlovu Gatsheni and many others.). In this sense arguing about whether and how to decolonise the discipline might distract us from the study of all those decolonised contributions that already exist. This chimes with arguments recently advanced by Robbie Shilliam. Similarly, Tim Shaw pointed to the relative neglect of the immense contributions of his former mentor at Makerere, Ali Amin Mazrui. In the 1960s and 1970s Mazrui’s insistence on the importance of religion and intercultural relations was ‘politically incorrect in terms of the Dar es Salaam school’, but now it is urgent and relevant. This, in turn, chimes with arguments recently advanced by Seifudein Adem.

Internationalisation, Covid and ‘delinking’

Practical pedagogy was at the forefront of many contributions, and we were fortunate to have begun with Juliet Thondhlana’s educational perspective. Her opening statement raised the important but difficult question of the relationship between internationalisation and decolonising initiatives. For example, one common strategy for those in European universities has been to try and alert students to the specific ways in which their institutions and communities have been entangled with the history of empire and colonialism. This is made much more difficult when an internationalised student body has little knowledge of, or investment in, these histories. African universities are, of course, themselves under increasing financial pressure to internationalise. Covid-19 has increased these financial pressures whilst making meaningful participation in such competition appear more realistic, thanks to the greatly accelerated shift to online education. (Sasha Leigh Coutinho also touched on some of the very interesting but difficult questions that Covid has raised about the international politics of ‘African’ knowledge, using the example of reactions to Madagascar’s ‘Covid-organics’ initiative.) Molly Cochran, meanwhile, began a discussion about whether online learning projects, shared between IR modules in African and European university settings, could be directed towards overcoming some of these difficulties.

The revaluing of ‘local’ knowledge has rarely been easy in the African university. Adaora Osondu-Oti mentioned here the difficulty of changing views of Europe when it is still so often seen as an El Dorado, or when students have been taught at school that Mungo Park discovered the River Niger! But such revaluing would be even harder in internationalised class‘rooms’. For Juliet Thondhlana such facts of interdependence mean that we should not imagine decolonising as ‘delinking’ (at least if conceived, as it used to be, as a radical break with capitalist value). For Olivia Rutazibwa, indeed, it might, however, mean delinking in the narrower sense of delinking from Eurocentric and modernist outlooks. The overall thrust of most contributions, in fact, was that decolonising should aim at transforming the discipline rather than withdrawing from it. Adaora Osondu-Oti asked us, therefore, not to talk about African international relations. Whilst Olukayode Faleye, similarly, noted the aim should still be international theory, but international theory built with ‘African materials’.

Collaboration, publication and the curriculum

Faleye himself pointed, however, to one major practical difficulty with extending this approach to the curriculum. With the exception of those produced in South Africa, it can be very hard to access these African materials in African universities. Indeed Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso mentioned that she has struggled with the lack of suitable textbooks for over 20 years or more (of course if this issue is particularly severe in Africa, it is not confined to it). Jörg Wiegratz mentioned that International Political Economy scholarship and teaching in the UK are also yet to decolonise. Key IPE debates are preoccupied with current crises in Europe and the US (and how to respond to them) whilst showing an 'impressively consistent disinterest' in contemporary African political economies, which have become marginal in current-day IPE debates and textbooks.

Opinion was divided over whether North-South collaborations could help alleviate these difficulties. There was widespread agreement that any such collaboration would require vigilance about agendas attached to any external funding. And many expressed a hope that the recent revival of the African Association of Political Science could help pave the way for more intra-African collaborations. But whilst some argued that interdependence created a need for ‘partnering’, others argued that you cannot expect the coloniser’s help to decolonise. For some this was because we know (from IR and political science) that states and institutions pursue their own interests. Whilst for others this very assumption needs critical examination as part of the decolonising project!

Final thoughts

In conclusion, it might be interesting to note some familiar topics that were not covered in these rich and wide-ranging discussions. In conversations amongst British IR scholars, for example, there has often been a great deal of attention paid to the question to how to improve access in Africa to materials and publishing opportunities available in Europe. Yet these discussions hinted at other ways - by-passing European benevolence - in which researchers in Africa and the African diaspora might be able collectively to develop new curricula and research agendas. In this connection Tim Shaw concluded by wondering whether more time might be spent discussing ‘the digital’, and its potential for new and better publishing models. Finally, we also didn’t touch on the question of the market for international studies degrees in Africa and elsewhere. If students are studying the subject in order to become diplomats, or to make themselves appear generally ‘marketable’, this may – in an age of increasing consumer choice - shape the demands they make of their curricula. But there is of course a limit to the number of things that can be discussed in one evening!

Image above: 'decolonizing' by Ron Mader